If scientists are correct, jellyfish may hold the key to immortality.
That's the premise of a New York Times Magazine article that examines a species of jellyfish (appropriately) nicknamed the "immortal jellyfish."
Known officially as Turritopsis nutricula (and sometimes as Turritopsis dohrnii), the minute creature has the ability to transform its cells back into a youthful state. As National Geographic puts it, the jellyfish transforms "into a blob-like cyst" that grows into a polyp colony -- the first stage of life.
From there, the jellyfish continues a conventional lifecycle, maturing and mating. Instead of dying, however, the immortal jelly reverts, time and again, back into the polyp colony. That ability "allows the jellyfish to bypass death, rendering [it] biologically immortal," notes Hongbao Ma, a researcher at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
According to a study published in "Nature and Science,"the jellyfish accomplishes this unique feat via "transdifferentiation." Essentially, the creature absorbs its cells, then transforms them into cells of any other type.
With life skills this advanced, it's no surprise the jellyfish has populated the globe in what's been termed "a worldwide silent invasion," the Telegraph notes.
Can humans learn a thing or two from these jellyfish? It depends who you ask.
According to Shin Kubota, one of the few scientists to successfully breed the species in a lab, the answer is apparent.
"The immortal medusa is the most miraculous species in the entire animal kingdom,” Kubota told the New York Times. “I believe it will be easy to solve the mystery of immortality and apply ultimate life to human beings.”
Others aren't so sure. The immortal jellyfish may have a great trick up its sleeve, they say, but the likelihood humans can replicate that process may be uncertain at best. "I don't think you're going to find any secrets in these creatures," Maria Pia Miglietta, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, told National Geographic in 2009.
More likely, predicts Stefano Piraino, a biologist at Italy's University of Salento, is some compromise between the two extremes.
“It is difficult to foresee how much and how fast ... [the jellyfish] can be useful to fight diseases,” he explained to the Times. And besides, “Increasing human longevity has no meaning, it is ecological nonsense. What we may expect and work on is to improve the quality of life in our final stages.”